Over breakfast in New York, the Australian actress goes deep on recent projects X-Men: Apocalypse and Neighbors 2 while stealing our bacon.
X-Men: Apocalypse is your second turn playing CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. How much of the surrounding geekdom do you participate in?
When we did First Class, an X-Men expert came to the set to talk to each of us about our characters. It was phenomenal. He was the ultimate X-Men geek. He had massive folders about every character. He came into my trailer and talked me through Moira’s backstory and the evolution of her character. He was brilliant. It was like he’d been harvesting all this X-Men information.
Does having an encyclopedia of Moira’s backstory help or hinder your performance?
It’s a bit of both. As an actor it’s always great to get as much information as you can. My character went to another planet for a while and came back and had a son who was half human and half mutant. Then she died and came back to life. There’s a lot of context. Obviously they take only small strands of these stories for the film.
X-Men: First Class took place in the early 1960s. The new one, Apocalypse, is set in the 1980s. Is it just us, or did Moira not age at all?
Twenty years have passed, and yeah, she looks pretty good. Everyone joked about it on set. Does time not apply to these characters? The mutants can probably get away with not aging, but I’m a mortal. Moira might have a good plastic surgeon.
So you’re not one of the X-Men, but in real life, is there a quality about you that you’d describe as a mutation?
I have remarkably small ears. It’s almost a mutation how small they are. They look slightly weird, but I can hear very well.
90 percent of the fan mail I get is from Star Wars—to sign pictures of me in a purple snood.
You already had geek cred from Star Wars. With the ubiquity of The Force Awakens, did you have any flashbacks to your role in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones?
I’m leaving. This interview is over. [laughs] You know what brought me back to that world? Working with James Earl Jones on Broadway in You Can’t Take It With You. There were people waiting for him by the stage door every night because of Darth Vader. That was a trip down memory lane: seeing the Star Wars obsession nightly. It was extraordinary being a part of that. I mean, talk about the fans! I have one line in that movie. It’s a stretch to say I have a character at all. But to this day 90 percent of the fan mail I get is from Star Wars—90 percent—to sign pictures of me in a purple snood.
You and Bobby Cannavale became parents for the first time earlier this year. It’s a cliché that once you become a parent you start noticing the ways you’re similar to your own parents. Has that happened to you?
Oh, I noticed that long before. As I started getting older, I began noticing. Luckily, I like my parents, so it’s cool. But it’s funny how it manifests itself. My parents are very no-nonsense Australians: They don’t like fanfare or fussiness. They’re incredibly self-sufficient and curious. I hope I’m like them in those ways. Australians are real wanderers; we’re well traveled because we’re so isolated. That’s something I’m proud of in being an Australian.
Neither of your parents has a show business background. Were they supportive of your decision to pursue acting at a young age?
They were very encouraging. They wanted me to go to college. I went to university in Sydney and got my degree. It was lucky that I was getting work from the start. I started taking acting classes when I was eight, so it was always part of my personality as a child, being a part of drama and acting. It wasn’t out of the blue that I started working once I was of age.
How hard is it for an Australian to relocate to Hollywood?
I went to Los Angeles when I was 18 or 19 and spent time out there. I went back and forth for about three years before I got a job in America. I definitely wasn’t an overnight success. And I didn’t take to it at first. In my own naive way I felt prepared for L.A., but nothing can ever really prepare you for L.A. It’s such a strange place. Even geographically it’s got such an odd layout. I enjoy it now, but when I was in my 20s it was overwhelming. I stayed out in Venice. These days I like the Eastside, Los Feliz. Really wherever they put me up. Wherever somebody pays the check.
You studied acting at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. Does that formal training help when you’re improvising in a Judd Apatow comedy?
I’ve gotten more confident with improvising. I definitely don’t fall into the category of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph and Seth Meyers. My God, Seth is the funniest improviser. As with anything, the more I do it, the more confident I get. But I always prepare for scenes. I never wing it.… Is it nasty and rude if I steal your bacon?
Not at all. With the first Neighbors movie, critics noted that your character, Kelly, was just as bonkers as those played by Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, and how uncommon that is for a comedic female lead. It seemed shocking that it was a rare occurrence. Is that what drew you to the part?
Absolutely. From day one, when I came onboard, the director, Nick Stoller, and I wanted to change that archetype. In these comedies the woman is traditionally the killjoy. We really wanted to turn that stereotype on its head. As irresponsible as Seth’s character is, we wanted my character to be equally irresponsible. They’re a team. And another thing—and this isn’t a radical thing, but it is in the context of these films—is that they have a great marriage. They’re on the same page. They enjoy each other, and sex, and they’re best friends.
From Get Him to the Greek to Neighbors 2, you’ve become a go-to comedic actor. What comedies did you gravitate toward as a kid in Australia?
My family sat around and watched Fawlty Towers together. I mean, Basil Fawlty, what a character! The precision of the physical comedy, John Cleese’s performance, the dialogue…it’s beautifully orchestrated. It’s mad, but it has the comedy down to a science. That was definitely a huge influence. And Seinfeld. It was huge in Australia, much bigger than Friends. I love Seinfeld. When I came to America, I got hooked on watching Saturday Night Live. I was fascinated by Kristen Wiig anytime she came onscreen.
You worked with Wiig on Bridesmaids. Looking back, that movie was a significant cultural moment. Did it feel like that at the time?
In the middle of it you’re just living day to day, but when I look back, it does seem like something really special. And you hope it paves the way for more movies like that. People like Paul Feig and Judd Apatow have championed female storytellers, whether it’s in Girls or Bridesmaids. They’re bucking convention, and we need more people like that. But promoting Bridesmaids was an eye-opening experience for me.
What was eye-opening about it?
With Bridesmaids, all the press focused on was “Wow, they’re all women, and they’re funny!” You would never say that about a comedy with all guys. No one would say, “They’re men, and they’re funny!” We were really treated like aliens in the press. I was so naive I didn’t even think about it during the press tour. I didn’t realize that was all anyone would want to talk about—that we were women. Maybe Kristen, Melissa and Maya were prepared for those questions because they’re more seasoned comedic performers, but I wasn’t. It’s something I wish we didn’t have to talk about.
Your X-Men co-star Jennifer Lawrence addressed Hollywood’s wage gap in an essay for Lenny Letter, writing that she’s paid much less than “lucky people with dicks.” You’ve spoken out about the wage gap as well. Are steps being taken to correct this?
I think the steps are beginning to be taken. The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] has its investigation, which is extraordinary, that this is finally being taken seriously as legitimate discrimination. It’s necessary. Jen is such a powerful presence, putting herself on the line and talking about her experiences as a woman and the differences in pay. Just starting the conversation is helping to shift perspectives. It’s the same with the racial issue at the Oscars this year. My friends who recently went through pilot season are saying that the entire focus is on diversity in casting, which seems to be a direct response to the conversation about the Oscars. My hope is the more we talk about it now, the less we’ll have to talk about it over time.
As an Australian, what are your thoughts on the American presidential election?
I’m fascinated, just riveted. My parents were here for a month, and we watched every debate, followed every poll. My dad’s a punter, you know, a betting man. All the bettors online had Marco Rubio as the favorite, so it was crazy to see how it’s turned out. But coming from Australia, the political world here is so much larger than life. This whole Donald Trump thing is such an unusual phenomenon. Australian politics are like a sedative compared to this spectacle.
It’s interesting that you mention your dad watching the odds. Remember last fall when statistician Nate Silver gave Trump a five percent chance of winning the nomination?
It’s unprecedented. The difference in tone between the two parties in the debates is so striking. When you see the desperation in the candidates who are losing and how they fight to stay alive in the race, it’s an interesting character study. As a performer, it’s fascinating to watch.
Do you view the election with concern?
If there’s a certain outcome. Citizens of the world are concerned about this, not just Americans. It is a terrifying prospect, sure. But I love America. The opportunities I’ve had here are extraordinary. The people I’ve met here have changed my life in so many ways.
You’ve worked with Bobby Cannavale on three films: Spy, Adult Beginners and Annie. Is it challenging to act with the person you love?
Not particularly. I imagine it would be more of a challenge if one of us were directing the other. As with any creative endeavor, you want the best for them. So if it’s a failure, or if it’s not going well, it can be heartbreaking. When we’re working on something together, the stakes can feel pretty high.
You’ve been in comedies. You did five seasons of Damages with Glenn Close. You’ve done period films, sci-fi, horror. Is there a new genre out there you’d like to tackle?
I’ve been doing more comedies lately, and I would like to do more dramas. I’ve done dramas in the past, like Damages, but I’d like to take what I’ve learned doing comedic work and apply it to dramas. And I’d been dying to do more theater and was thrilled to do You Can’t Take It With You. I’m doing David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow in Australia at the end of the year. I’m such a big theater-goer, and obviously Bobby is, you know, Bobby Broadway. We’re a couple of theater geeks.
So what show should we see on Broadway right now?
Uh, Hamilton? I mean, come on. The soundtrack is on in our house all the time. I went with Glenn Close. I’m just going to go ahead and drop her name. She’s the only reason I got a ticket. You can score hard-to-get tickets to great shows when you know Glenn Close.
Styling by Dianna Lunt for Art Dept.
Hair by Harry Josh for Jed Root, Inc.
Makeup by Deanna Hagan for Kate Ryan, Inc.